Friday, March 31, 2006

Turkey herding

It’s not funny anymore.

I really mean it.

Maybe at one time. Maybe the first couple of times. But I’m tired of it now.

The joke, sort of like the third sequel to a movie that wasn’t all that great the first time, has gone on much to long.

Of course I’m talking about those turkeys.

The ones that insist on roosting each and every night out on that stone wall in front of our house.

There they are right now, perched up on the wall.

Just two hours ago I went out there and ran them off, shooed them off the wall and walked them up the hill.

Unlike chickens, Turkeys are relatively easy to herd.

At least they’re easy to get moving in one direction.

The males plucking along with their heavy load of feathers and stopping, every few steps to gobble in unison (a fact of nature: when one turkey gobbles, all turkey’s gobble.)

And the females, in their flighty way, they’re running back and forth, back and forth. always slightly ahead of the males.

In fact, if you look, that’s what got those males moving. They’re really following the females.

So get the picture.

There I am, bringing up the rear, The tom turkeys several steps in front of me, stopping every several paces to let out a group gobble, and the females bobing from one side to the other of this procession, always slightly ahead, however, of the whole parade.
There we go across the field, up the hill where they hit the road and one of the females, instead of crossing the road, decides to go down it. The males follow.

I have to run around her to get in front (you never run at them because then, they scatter).

Until finally, I can turn her and they all go up the hill across the field and, this is where I quickly open up the fence, and with only several minutes of running them from one side of the gate to the other, they enter.

I close the gate.

Return to the house.

And several hours later, there they are, on the wall again.

And it’s time to start the entire process all over again.

Friday, March 24, 2006

chicken herding

I had a plan.

This is one I’ve been thinking about for weeks and weeks and weeks.

How do I move the birds? How do I move 150 chickens that have been pretty much doing as they please in the field in front of the house.

How do I move them out of that field and down the road.

Knowing. Knowing that chickens do not herd. Chickens are the rugged individualist of the domesticated birds.

They don’t listen to instructions.

They don’t follow the leader.

In short, they do not have a very high cooperation quotent.

This is opposed to turkeys and geese. These are species that say, ‘give me a leader and I will follow them anywhere.’

So, here was the plan.

We spent the last week building a new, improved, high tech, stylish, chicken house on wheels. A structure known in the trade as a chicken tractor.

Unlike our last chicken house, this one had a door that actually opened and closed. There were no openings where wayward chickens could steal out and in without the owner’s (mine) permission.

The theory being, if I could get all of the chickens into the chicken tractor, I could close the door, hook this thing up to the truck and drive it over to the new field.

When I opened the door in the morning the chickens would find themselves in a new location with an electric fence keeping them from making the long hike back to where they had been.

A good plan.

At least I thought so.

So, the night before the move I went out to the new chicken house and looked inside. It was mostly empty. Maybe 50 or so chickens inside but definitely not the entire flock.

I looked around. “Where had all the chickens gone?’

I walked around the chicken tractor twice and then I heard them.

Underneith their new home.

I got down on all fours and looked. There they were. Something like 60 chickens squeezed into the little space between the tractor’s floor and the ground.

This wasn't going to work. In the morning these chickens would not be inside the tractor. They would be out running around and there would be no moving them to their new home.

Luckily chickens, after dark. don’t do much running around, though.

So I spent the next hour and a half crawling under the tractor, grabbing a chicken or two by the legs and hauling them out, throwing them inside their new home and slamming the door shut before they could escape.

Over and over again.

And since I’ve mentioned the chicken tractor door, let me tell you a little background.

The door I used was this neat, expensive greenhouse door. Complete with special hinges and handles and latches.

My brother-in-law put the door on.

And when he finished he handed me a metal hook and said.

”I have this left over. I don’t know where it goes.”

It looked like some sort of hook that kept the door shut when you closed it.

I opened and closed the door several times. It opened and closed just fine. Latching each time. The hook looked like a device that would keep the door, after it was closed, shut. It would keep it closed when bumped.

I opened the door and shut it several more times. The door seemed to close just fine. it also looked like a lot of trouble to take off the door to put on the forgotten metal hook.

“I guess this is fine.” and went back to finishing up with the chicken tractor.

Now, here I am, squirming on my belly under the chicken tractor, sort of like squirming under a car, grabbing a chicken by the leg, squirming back out dragging the screaming chicken behind me, the entire time she’s kicking and pecking and hollering.

Get out from under the hen house dragging the ckicken, go around to the door, open it, throw in the bird, slam the door shut, and repeat the entire process again.

Over and over again until all 60 birds had been caught, dragged and thrown in the hen house.

By this time I was pretty much covered with the materials that chickens leave behind whereever they go.

But, I was finished, and when I looked at my work I saw that it was good. In the morning I’d come back out, the chickens would be locked inside.

I would come out, hook up the truck to the hitch, drive over to the new pasture, put the fence in place and open the door.

Great plan, one that was still on track.

And when I got up in the morning. Everything was still hunky dory.

No chickens running around loose.

All the chickens inside the tractor. I opened up the door just to be sure and there they were. Up on their roosts, in the nest boxes, standing by the door waiting to be let out.

I closed the door and went around the other end, backed up the truck, Alined the hitch with the ball on the truck.

Got it alined, only, only the end of the chicken tractor was about a foot lower than the back of the truck.

In other words, somehow I had to lift up the end of the chicken tractor about a foot so I could attach it to the truck.


Get the tractor, the farm tractor, I thought, use the bucket on the front end to lift the chicken house up until it fit on the truck hitch and then drop it down.


I went over, got the tractor, started it up, drove it over to the hen house, Put the bucket in place, slowly lifted up the front of the chicken house, got the hitch right over the ball on back of the truck and dropped it.

Plunk. Right in place. The chicken tractor was hooked up to the truck. I looked around, backed up the tractor to get it out of the way. Got down, and that. Everything is going pretty good.

Only, only that’s when I saw them.

Chickens, all of them. Running everywhere. Free.

And the door, the door to the back of the chicken tractor. it was wide open. When I dropped the tractor on the hitch it had bounced and sprung and the chickens were free.

All of that work. And the 60 chickens, along with the one’s who had cooperated. All of them were out of the house and running around, looking for a morning meal.

The next entree will describe getting them back inside and over to the new field. Along with how easy it is to march turkeys and geese off to anywhere. The butcher, over a cliff. And they will cooperate.

Unlike chickens.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Eddie and Duck Feet

I just spent the last several hours trying to get a dozen turkeys back in the yard.

Can I use the term dumb turkeys?

Or maybe I’m the dumb one.

Running back and forth.

Half the turkeys wanting to go in one direction.

The other half wanting to go in the other direction.

And me, I didn’t want them to go in either direction.

Let’s not even discuss how they got out of the yard in the first place. All’s I can say is that I wasn’t the one to leave the gate open.

So, here I am out in the woods trying to get the two groups of turkeys to join together and act as one and then get them to follow the fence line around until they get to the gate.

And then, at the gate, I wanted them to go through it. Into the yard.

Doesn’t that sound simple enough. At least you would think it was simple enough for turkeys.

Well, there’s one thing, one of the few redeeming facets about turkey behavior is that they are easier to herd than chickens.

At least with turkeys several of them will go in the same direction at the same time.

Chickens, however, are all rugged individualist.

Rugged individualist as in living up in the cold, cold wilds of northern Alaska somewhere.

They aren’t going to cooperate with anyone.

But back to the turkeys.

I spent several hours chasing them back and forth, gradually getting them closer and closer to that open gate and then,

then I got them to the gate and what do they do?

They won’t go in. They run right past it and off into the woods on the other direction.

So,to get them back and finally through the gate I have to chase them through the woods over there for another half hour and then finally, finally, I get them to the gate, and through the gate and into the yard and I think, Victory, my turkey nursing for the day is over.

Only, only no.

Once in the yard I closed the gate, made sure the feeder was full and then went into the house to get a bite to eat.

And while in the kitchen, I’m standing there looking out out the window and there are the turkeys.

This time they were trying to kill each other.

Or is that 3 or 4 of them have ganged up and are trying to kill one of their number.

It's like middle school or is that elementary school boys. A gang of them picking on the nerd of the class.

Do you remember that?

It was usually instigated by that guy that everyone was afraid of. Not afraid of him because he was going to physically beat you up or anything. But he had a really nasty tongue and the finely honed skill of being able to verbally humiliate his target.

And his target was usually was the one boy least capable of defending himself.

The nerd of the class.

And me, I was always the kid that defended the nerd.

“Hey, leave him alone.”

You know what happens when you do that, don’t you? The guy with the bad tongue turns his skills on you.

That’s why everyone always went along with him. They were scared to death of being picked on.

I remember the guy with the mean tongue, In my case his name just happened to be Eddie, just like in Leave it to Beaver.

And the nerd he picked on? I only remember the name Eddie tagged him with (isn’t that a shame?)

Duck Feet!

And I remember Eddie nasty tongue calling him Duck Feet and all the other boys giggling and calling him Duck Feet too and me saying ‘hey leave him alone.’

And suddenly there is this great silence and slowly Eddie evil tongue looks over in my direction and you can see the gears turning in his head.

And the other boys are waiting for him to lay into me with something really choice because really, they are terrified of being the recipients of Eddie's nasty tongue.

I mean, that’s why they are going along with him in the first place.

And suddenly Eddie opens his mouth.

But I don’t remember that part.

Let’s get back out to the turkeys.

What I think we have out here is one turkey, Eddie Turkey and around him is his gang and over there is old Duck Feet.

And suddenly they are all picking on Duck Feet.

Pecking at him, grabbing him around the head. Plucking out his feathers.

The way they’re going at it I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven't killed him by morning.

So what should I do?

What would you do?

What I did is I ran out the front yard yelling. Trying to separate the boys.

Getting the bullies off of poor Duck Feet. Trying to give him a chance to run away.

But does he run away? Does he go find a safe corner?

Remember, we’re talking turkeys here.

He stands there and immediately, immediately after I go back to the house they’re on him again, plucking more feathers.

So I go back out and try to break it up again but it’s not going to happen. Duck Feet doesn’t have the sense to retreat for his own good and the gang is determined to punish him for his sins.

(which I imagine are the same as the nerd back in elementary school, being weak and vulnerable).

So, finally, I run over to him and grab him by his feet and pick him up (he must weigh 25 pounds or so) and throw him up over the fence and out of the yard.

Let him run back out to the woods. At least he stands a chance against the predators. In the yard with his buddies he stands no chance at all.

(is there a moral there?)

goose logistics

I have a problem.

A problem of logistics. A problem of logistics and geese.

As any of you who have been out to our farm recently can report, our geese, our dozen ‘weeder’ geese have been wintering and weeding in our front yard.

But winter is over and its time to move on and weed another place.

Time for the geese to march up on the hill, to goose step up the mountain, and right there, right next to the forest, to set up camp for the summer.

It’s time for the weeder geese to make their new home on top of our asparagus bed where they can, for the season, eat the weeds growing between the 1500 asparagus plants.

Eat weeds all summer long until they are fat and plump.

(Wenonah has announced, though, actually she has decreed, that the geese will not be reduced (or is that elevated?) to the centerpiece at a holiday meal. She has decreed that the geese (and turkeys) will not be eligible for mealdom. Instead, the geese and turkeys have achieved the legal status of 'pet'. And, as everyone knows, one does not eat ones pets).

But besides the pet status, we have another problem.

How do transport geese from here to there? How do you get a dozen willful geese to go on a march, to goose step out of the yard, down the drive, past the fields, the orchard, and then, up the hill, across another field and finally, through a gate and into our quarter acre asparagus patch.

When I think about herding geese a picture in my mind lights up.

It’s a narrow country road somewhere in the south of France. And there, coming down the road, lead by an old, somewhat overweight farmer, a French farmer. And at his feet, actually only occasionally at his feet, but mostly running back and forth are two eagerly energetic herding dogs, herding dogs busily herding a large flock of huge white geese.

I think I must have seen the picture in a magazine once.

The farmer is walking along with his staff in hand and contentedly following him, filling the road from hedgerow to hedgerow, are these geese.

The picture makes it seem as if that is what geese do.

Follow their farmer down the road. (yes, I can also see these geese happily plucking themselves before rubbing themselves down with butter and garlic before happily climbing into the wood cookstove to turn themselves into a mouth watering French goose dinner. But that’s another thought).

The real issue here is that in my experience geese do not cooperate when being moved from one location to another. (At least American geese don't, French geese, for all I know, might be a completely different story, but I doubt it).

In my experience, geese have no intention of cooperating with humans. They have their own set of values. We will call those values 'goose values'.

And goose values do not often intersect with human values.

And they definitely do not intersect when the issue is moving from a pasture and pond they have come to call home, to another location, no matter how delightful the new location might be.

A basic goose value is they are homebodies.

They don’t want to move. They like the familiar.

And so that picture, the one with the hundreds of geese happily following the short, overweight, wise French farmer (no doubt as he leads them on to location where he, the farmer, and his lovely wife are conspiring to turn the, (the geese, into pate de foie gras).

Maybe that French farmer has some really wise border collies in his employ but, in my experience, those geese are not going to cooperate if it means moving to a new location.

They will bark (is that what geese do?) and squawk and rebel. And resist and protest.

And they will refuse to take another step away from home.

And even if those collies run and nip at the uncooperative geese, its going to be an open issue as to whether, in the end, which value will win. The goose values of not leaving home or the human value of turning those large white geese into goose dinners.

So, let’s bring us back to my logistical problem.

Granted. I don’t have hundreds and hundreds of geese.

I only have ten.

However, I don’t have even one well trained border collie (my neighbor has one but its not of the trained variety).

And if I opened the fence around the yard and called my ten geese out of their home and directed them to goose-step up the hill I wouldn’t have very much luck.

THe geese wouldn’t budge.

They would stick out their necks and hiss and pretend like they’re going to bite (only I’m so much bigger than they are, their bite is only for those who show fear).

So, what am I going to do? How do I get them out of my front yard so I can plant some grass seed. How do I get them up the hill to the asparagus bed so they can eat the weeds (and be out of our way for the summer.

If I haven’t figure out a solution before Saturday, how about the people still around when we are scheduled to go on a hike. How about you helping me herd the geese up the hill.

Let’s see if we are half a good at it as that French farmers border collies are.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Forest Fire


That’s what the e-mail from the weather service says.

Right now, up on top of the mountain, the wind is gusting up to 20-30 miles an hour.

And even down here, down in the valley, we are getting a steady ten mile an hour wind.

On top of the strong wind, do you remember the last time it rained? I mean a serious rain?

And there’s hardly been any snow this winter.

Can you imagine what would happen if there was a spark up on top of the mountain?

How long would it take a fire to roar down the hillside with a wind that strong pushing it along?

It’s hard to think of our valley having a major forest fire, though, I do remember a fire up on top of the mountain about fifteen years ago.

I remember that fire pretty clearly.

It was one of those dry summers with little real rain and constant afternoon thunderstorms. One storm in particular had worked over the ridge pretty good. I remember seeing maybe half a dozen lightning strikes up there.

But it wasn’t for several days that someone saw smoke wafting across the rock cliffs up there.

Unlike tonight, there wasn’t any noticeable wind that summer. The fire, instead of roaring down the mountain side, just sat there and smoldered.

It must have started up there where all of those pine needles that have fallen in the crevices between those large boulders.

And smoldered.

And smoldered.

And even when there was enough of a fire down in between the rocks for someone over near The Plains to see the smoke there wasn’t much of a fire.

Not like if it was on a night like tonight.

Instead, by the time anyone got up to the top of the mountain, the damage was only the pine needles, and a half dozen old trees that had died and fallen down in-between the rocks.

However, once the fire was discovered I think every volunteer fire department in the county was called out.

I remember leading the dozens of kids, the young men, the firefighters, all dressed in their firefighting equipment with a five gallon water container strapped to their backs up the side of the mountain.

Just that summer I had cut open a trail from our farm to the top of the mountain, and all night long and into the next day the firefighters would fill up their water packs from our spring and hike up the side of the mountain to the fire, empty their water on the fire, and then make the hike back down again.

Sometime the next afternoon the fire was declared ‘under control’ and the firefighters got to stop hiking up and down the mountain carrying 40 pounds of water each time.

Talk about hard, sweaty, work.

And as a side note, sometime during the next week, well after the fire had been extinguished by the firefighters carrying water up the mountain five gallons at a time, the Army, out of a nearby base (since closed), bulldozing a road in from interstate 66 and up along the top of the mountain to where the fire had been. This road, over the next decade, was used by four-wheelers to access the top of the mountain where on numerous occasions I would climb up the mountain and find that the people in their jeeps and trucks had left behind them unattended campfires. Fires which could have, on a night like this, easily got out of control and burned down every tree in the valley. (Talk about unintended consequences).

But that’s not the only sign of forest fires in our valley. On the west side of the valley most of the trees that are over 70 years old are hollow.

On the uphill side of the trees down where the tree meets the ground are openings.

This is a sign that there was a major forest fire. When the fire rages through a forest and swirls around the trunk of a tree it gets hotter (foresters have told me) on the uphill side, and will often burn a hole into the tree.

If you cut one of those trees down and look into the hollow core you can still see the black charcoal as a sign of the fire over half a century ago.

And Wenonah remembers a fire on the other side of the valley.

She says, “I remember it was late summer and I was home with my mother when all of a sudden there were flames roaring up on the ridge.

”I remember the house filling with smoke as the fire got closer and I remember my mother not knowing what to do. We were pretty much trapped in the house. The fire quickly came down the side of the mountain and jumped right over the road.

“Our way out of the valley was blocked by fire. And my father was a way at work with the truck.

”We were really frightened. This was back when the farm was way out in the country and no one else lived in the valley. My mother and I were the only ones back here when the fire came over the top of the mountain down to the bottom of the valley and jumped over the road.

“We thought we were going to get burnt alive. There was no where to run except to run through the woods ahead of the flames.

“And then suddenly, the wind must have changed directions. The fire got down to the bottom of the valley where the creek, where Catlett Branch flows, and it just stopped.”

Friday, March 03, 2006

Gangs and Vandals

I can’t believe it.

Here we live out in the country and there’s a gang of vandals hanging out on our driveway.

In fact just now, I got in our truck, drove past the beehives, past the cemetery field, through the gate, around the bend down toward the creek

And there they were.

All seven of them. Right there in the middle of the road.

Staring at me!

But I better stop right there and instead of telling a story get down to, instead, business...

with this weeks pertinent news from the farm.

Farm News

1. Flower share. Are you interested in a flower share? I will not be growing flowers for a flower share this year. However a friend, Elena, will be. Elena’s flower share will be like the one I’ve grown for the past half dozen years (though she will probably do a better job of it). This year, though, we will only be offering flowers for the Monday and Tuesday pick up. Details will be posted on our webpage. (Briefly, the flower share will be approximately 25 stems each week from mid July until the end of the season. $115).

3. Greenhouse comes to life. We started bringing our greenhouse to life this week. The heats on and we started 20,000 seedlings. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, parsley, herbs. Within the next several weeks over 70,000 seedlings will be coming to life in the greenhouse.

4. This week we also planted several acres of peas. These should be ripe by the end of April and we will invite shareholders to come out and pick there own.

5. Next week we will be getting the hoophouses in shape for planting greens so people can come out and get early salad fixings (mid April).

6. And, of course, there are eggs. I will be around this weekend so if you want to come out and collect your own eggs, you’re welcome to visit. First come first serve.

7. Share payments are due the beginning of April.

Which brings us back around to the gang. Or should I simply call them the vandals?

I’m sure, when we came face to face on the driveway, they were standing there trying to build up their courage to make a raid on our farm.

They were probably discussing what it was that we had that they could steal.

I could tell by looking in their eyes that they were up to no good.

They, obviously, had visions of stolen loot dancing in their heads.

There was a time when they would have strolled right onto our farm and hauled off about anything they choses.

One year they stole $15,000 worth of various vegetables.

I kid you not.

And the year before that it was something like $12,000 worth of lettuce, mustard, pac choi, spinach and okra.

Can you believe they stole Okra? They are obviously southern vandals and not an okra naive Bostonian or New Yorker.

(I’ve noticed, after growing CSA vegetables for ten years, that people from up north tend not to appreciate the pleasures of okra).

But in the past several years we’ve fought back.

I mean, in the past couple years we’ve put up over 7000 feet of ten foot high anti-vandal fencing. And we’ve fortified that tall barrier with another 7000 foot fence, an electrified fence.

And on the inside are the dogs. Andorra and Twain, two 150 pound Great Pyrenees, who take their job very seriously and are constantly out there patrolling the inside of the fence. Always on the lookout for wild intruders.

(right now its after one in the morning and I can hear them out there now, barking at someone on the other side of the fence. Someone out in the dark, night forest).

And besides the anti-vandal dogs, several times a year we get offers from snipers who want nothing better than the opportunity to quietly sit up in a tree, no matter what the weather, with the hope of getting to shoot a wayward trespasser.

So, when I came barreling down the road, and around the corner where I came face to face with the gang I was in no mood for a pleasant discussion of what these critters were up to.

And they obviously felt guilty about something.


Because we only stared at each other for several moments before they broke and ran.

They took off, bouncing off into the woods. Their white tails quickly disappearing into the distance.

Oh, and for you bird watchers out there. I need some advice. 

I saw this week that the bluebirds were back. They even landed on top of my bluebird house on a post out on the edge of one of our fields.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stay long. 

They, a couple, stood on the house for a few minutes, looked around, peered into the opening of the nest box and then flew off. Disappearing into the forest on the other side of the field.

Last year, about his time, a couple, maybe the same couple, hung out at the bluebird house most of an entire day. But, in the end, decided to make their nest somewhere else.

For the preceding half a dozen years a bluebird couple would come back each spring and build a nest in a hole in our house underneath the kitchen eaves.

But two years ago we had the house stuccoed, which, besides making our house airtight, covered up the bluebirds home.

So, the question is, what do I have to do to my bluebird box to convince the bluebird couple that this is the place to raise their chicks?